I’ve had mixed experiences with this author as my regular readers will know, but I was intrigued by this particular title, as the peculiar circumstances which take place in the story occur near an Air Ministry’s experimental station. This didn’t seem like a usual Wentworth setting and I was hoping it would be like her war themed novel The Key (1944) which I rather enjoyed.
The novel opens with characters familiar to most Wentworth novels; the poor relations taken in by a mean spirited and controlling benefactor or rather benefactress in this case, as it is Lydia Crewe who rules the roost in her house, with Rosamond forced to obey her every whim due to her younger sister Jenny, who was in a bad motoring accident years ago. With no money or place to go Jenny and Rosamond were taken in by their aunt, Lydia, giving Jenny the space to recover. Yet this security has come at a price. Things begin to unsettle though when a dashing young man, named Craig Lester, arrives wanting to see Jenny about a manuscript she sent to the publishers he works at. Of course this plot strand quickly goes by the way side when he sees Rosamond. Excuses are made and he ensures his stay in the area. Though it is through Jenny’s literary designs that we hear of the first peculiar circumstance of the book, namely a year ago when a woman went outside for a breath of fresh air and never came back. Postcards explaining this disappearance are forthcoming but any seasoned mystery reader is dubious of such items. Alongside this unusual event we have the Air Ministry facility nearby and officials there are concerned about this disappearance due to the fact there has been some leakage of information from the base. It is through this angle that the police become involved, with DI Frank Abbott going down to the area on the QT to do some discrete investigating. It is also at this juncture that Miss Silver is called in, with her knack of sifting through and collecting village gossip. Thankfully like Frank she has an acquaintance in the area to stay with.
Of course the arrival of these figures shakes things up and other peculiar events soon follow. This is a story with a number of narrative strands which intertwine and cross over throughout the tale. There are moments of melodrama with Lydia’s plots to banish Jenny to a cheap boarding school. Then again Jenny herself is a suspicious element in the book as it soon appears that she may not be as ill as she seems. Sinister plots are also afoot in the night and it is not just Miss Silver who feels the need for a midnight walk. The ending is somewhat bluntly dropped 60 pages before the end, which leaves Wentworth plenty of time, perhaps too much time, to wrap up loose ends.
Unusually for Wentworth, her opening chapters, although introducing her romance plot and the characters it will involve, also provide a somewhat derogatory/ tongue in cheek commentary on romance fiction, which did feel a little ironic given the amount of romance she includes in her work. This critique comes through Lester and his conversations with Jenny and it is interesting to read his views on writing as a craft, such as when he talks about the difficulties of transferring real life dialogue onto the page and I was left intrigued as to how much these ideas were Wentworth’s own and how much she felt she achieved them in her work.
As the blurb for my penguin edition of this book suggests there is a Victorian melodrama feel to this story at times, especially in the opening chapters and Lydia Crewe definitely
has a Miss Havisham air to her, including her bony physique, her thwarted love affair in her youth and her obsession with the past. Tying into that Crewe house does become symbolic of an older way of life no longer in dominance. Lester sums this up well when he says:
‘I suppose it started as a perfectly good house put up to serve the needs of real live flesh and blood people. The sort of life they lived is over. The kind of houses they lived in just aren’t wanted any more. They’re either got to be put to new uses, or they’d be better pulled down. You know as well as I do that this house is nothing but a mausoleum.’
This is in keeping with many post WW2 mysteries which reflect the demise of the country house. Similarly in keeping with post WW2 Miss Marple novels, this story also suggests that whilst externally villages have changed, with new and mysterious arrivals, ‘they haven’t changed all that underneath.’
It is not just Lydia Crewe though who is linked to the past as in early descriptions of Miss Silver she is depicted as ‘permanently out of date,’ and visually speaking ‘might have stepped out of any family album before the twentieth century wars ha[d] shattered a Victorian and Edwardian world.’ Yet Miss Silver’s lack of change is not seen as a negative as it is with Lydia and her home and I think this is to do with how these characters are connected to the past and how it impacts their behaviour and actions in the present, which I think comes across in a comment near the end of the book when someone says:
‘It isn’t really good for people to live in the past as she has done. After all, these old houses and pictures, and furniture – they don’t matter as much as people do and we oughtn’t to let ourselves think so.’
Reading a retrospective case by Wentworth has been a change, as most of hers are mysteries which focus on crimes in the here and now. However I am not sure whether this is a structure she is entirely comfortable with. This story is a mystery with isolated incidences of suspicious circumstances which get gathered into a whole. Whilst I don’t mind such a structure, I felt there wasn’t much for the reader to go on at times and due to the number of strange events I think they began to lose their impact, particularly in the final quarter of the book. Equally I think most readers will be impressed by how Miss Silver cottons on to everything given the vagueness of the case and in fairness the mystery only gets resolved due to a decision of Miss Silver’s to go on a midnight walk. However I think the reader will identify an aspect of the case fairly easily, though some elements will come as a surprise. Wentworth’s choice of victims made for an interesting choice and there were a lot of good elements in this book, but unfortunately it sags in the middle and the ending lacks flourish. To be honest the most dramatic incident to occur whilst reading the ending was when a young swallow came into my living room and I had to spend a few minutes trying to instruct it on how to remove itself from the premises. Additionally it was rather a shame that the Air Ministry facility was not properly integrated into the story effectively. So yeah not quite as good as The Key after all.